Don’t Let Car Safety Take a Back Seat!
The importance of extended rear-facing for your toddler
As the bump burgeons and the due-date approaches, we parents-to-be are typically preoccupied with preparation in the material sense: what stuff does my baby need (and, later, what is all this stuff, anyway? and, even later, how did all this stuff take over my life?)? We wash the tiniest onesies in the gentlest detergents, spend hours reading reviews of strollers and “bouncy” seats, and coordinate the baby’s nursery just so. It’s funny how these nesting activities make us feel as if we know what’s about to hit us, huh? (Hilarious, really.) After my son was born, the onesies I'd washed were perpetually filthy, the stroller went unused for months because I couldn’t seem to put him down, and the nursery, well, that was for show for some time, too.
All in the name of making wise choices for our children, we interview pediatricians, consider carefully how we’ll nourish our babies, and spend months (or more!) trying to invent the perfect name with which to anoint them. And, sure, we register for a car seat. I know I made certain we had the top-rated seat on the market but, beyond that, didn’t think there was much to it—until the moment we drove home from the hospital, and I realized the gravity of putting my most precious cargo into the back seat of a moving vehicle. I was horrified. Now I’ve suddenly got an 18-month-old, one who grew out of his infant seat before he’d even spent six full months in the world; the seat we drove him home from the hospital in has long been tucked away, and there’s a big-boy convertible seat in its place (with a big boy inside of it, too). Where has time gone? But, more importantly, what’s best for my toddler now?
Did you know that as many as 80 percent of car seats are installed improperly and subsequently—gulp—used to transport little ones? Did you also know that the American Academy of Pediatrics now advises that a child remain rear-facing up until the age of two, at a bare minimum? The former recommendation of 20 lbs. and one year old has been discarded, and, though some pediatricians continue to dish out stale advice and popular misconceptions lead parents to turn their kids around too soon, there simply isn’t a compelling reason for ignoring the new standard.
I’d like to share the many arguments for keeping your precious cargo facing the road behind him, though before I get into the technical stuff, let me remind you of something: if he’s bored, even if he cries red-faced into the back seat all the way over the river to Grandmother’s house, he’ll get over it. Let this be the first of many decisions you make not because it’s his preference, but because it’s best for him. Because you’re the parent, and you said so.
It seems to me that what most parents are concerned about—even more so than the fact that their toddler would prefer to see mom or dad over the guy with road rage behind him—is a taller child’s legs becoming uncomfortable or being in danger of breaking in a crash. My son is in the 95th percentile of height, has legs that go on for miles, and he’s absolutely fine sitting like a frog now and then. He can get into a pretty severe Downward Dog without a flinch. They’re kids! We’ve all seen how children contort their bodies in ways we only wish we were capable of as adults. And even if their legs were at risk for serious injury (which they aren’t, see links below for more information), legs can break and heal and break again, all during a few seasons of middle school dodgeball, and be just fine in the end. Heads, necks, and spines? Different story.
Gruesome as it is, it’s an important fact to keep in mind: A too-young forward-facing baby, with a spine made of soft, stretchy cartilage (unlike the stronger, more rigid kind in adult bodies, which provide better defense against whiplash) can easily become paralyzed or worse—internally decapitated—upon impact. On the contrary, a rear-facing child will be propelled into the back of her car seat and slide gently toward the top of it in the same scenario. Refer to The Car Seat Lady (link below) for an in-depth explanation, how-to videos, and more.
Children in other parts of the world are routinely kept rear-facing until the ages of three or even five, when the head becomes more proportionate to the body and the spine becomes much more adult-like in its construction. According to The Car Seat Lady’s research, Sweden can claim both tiny meatballs and the startlingly low statistic of fewer than 1 rear-facing child death per year. In addition to keeping your toddler facing backward until she outgrows her seat by height, meaning the top of her head sits less than one inch from the top of her seat, here are some other tips to keep in mind:
Check your seat each and every time you take your baby for a spin. If it budges more than one inch, side-to-side or front-to-back, it’s time to readjust;
Make sure you know how to install your seat safely yourself. I felt like I’d earned an excruciatingly hard-won Ph.D. after putting ours in by myself, but now I can do it with ease;
Even after installing yourself, visit seatcheck.org to arrange a safety inspection (tip: many police officers are certified to install car seats, so pay your local station a visit!);
Be sure to check the recline angle, shoulder strap positioning, and safety belt positioning for proper use (see The Car Seat Lady as well as your seat’s manual for more information);
Always read both your vehicle’s manual and your seat’s manual before installing anything, as instructions differ from car to car;
If you wouldn’t throw it at your child, don’t leave it loose in the car. Remember that upon impact (or even if you’ve stopped short), a once-grounded item becomes a flying object. For this reason, I threw out the suction-cupped window shades and headrest mirror we’d registered for—check to make sure the accessories in your car are safety-approved;
NEVER strap a child into his seat while he’s wearing a puffy winter coat. This will prevent you from being able to adjust the straps properly, and can have horrifying consequences;
Travel with your own seat. We purchased a great carry-case for our convertible car seat here, and it is well worth the money and the extra lugging. We never have to rely on using one from a car rental company, we always have our seat-specific manual handy, and we don’t have to worry about outdated, recalled, or improperly installed equipment when we’re away from home;
Be sure your pediatrician is providing updated information on car travel.
In the store:
Try to choose a convertible seat with the highest rear-facing weight and height capacity possible. The Britax Marathon is what our son rides in now (we have three of them!), and for ease of use, comfort, and safety, it is simply fantastic. Britax recently introduced an even safer, snazzier line of seats, and I don’t doubt they are top of the line. Though the Marathon and other Britax models are on the more expensive end as car seats go, I can’t think of another piece of baby gear more worth its price tag. (And I can think of plenty of gear that isn't worth investing in at all.) There are many brands that receive rave reviews and high safety ratings. Consult publications like Consumer Reports and Baby Bargains (by Denise and Alan Fields) for unbiased and reliable information when shopping for products whose safety and quality ratings are of the utmost importance.
On the road:
To combat the rear-facing blues, try making a few mix-CDs of your child’s favorite tunes. Remember, even though you prefer to face forward in the car, your little one doesn’t know any better yet; if you’ve decided to turn a young toddler back around after reading this, remind yourself that kids are flexible—he’ll get used to it again soon. Ultimately, the car trip will end, all will be forgiven, and you’ll rest more easily knowing you made the right choice in car seat safety, even if your toddler wants to face the open road. Eventually he’ll get there.
Check out these resources to help you feel more equipped, and for more complete information on car seat safety throughout early childhood:
Happy Travels! May your Precious Cargo be safe!
Jennifer Zohn is a Long Island native and the mother of a toddler son. She holds a bachelor's degree in music from Temple University and, when she isn't busy chasing around her curly-headed little boy, works as a part-time freelance writer and editor. She enjoys cooking, lingering over a barrel of coffee, learning web design, playing viola, and singing with her family. Tweet with her @jennyzohn.